As Ever, It’s All About the Pitching

2-16-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

Will the Pirates be better in 2022? When does the window open? How can the Pirates avoid having the window slam shut?

Questions like these fly around social media constantly, and while each of them have a ton of potential variables, each of them share a common portion, it depends on the pitching.

The Pirates are one of the oldest and most storied franchises in the game, and that’s while acknowledging the past 40 years have been nothing to write home about. Success in this town has almost always been about the bats, the Lumber Company. Sure, they’ve had some good pitchers, but very few who you’d consider locks for the hall.

Historically, it’s always been a problem, even when the rebuilds or retools have come to fruition, the pitching was always just not quite there. It’s taken moves or acquisitions to get over the hump.

Thing is, as a Pirates fan, it has almost always felt like there were 2 or 3 guys we were watching and hoping would come to Pittsburgh and be the Ace. Ok, maybe enough of you have given up on that moniker and instead you just want a top of the rotation guy.

For instance, in the last cycle before going and getting Liriano and Burnett we all were looking to Taillon and Cole, then it was Glasnow. We all know what happened there, Taillon was quite possibly the most unlucky athlete I’ve ever watched, Glasnow was not afforded the patience or not allowed to use substances, I’ll let you decide that one, and was moved as part of a bad trade. Cole was good, but as with most young pitchers didn’t hit the height of his powers until after he was traded.

Oh there was this Mitch Keller kid coming, and Brandon Cumpton, maybe Cody Bolton who we’re still waiting on due to his own injury and COVID caused issues.

Point is, we were looking down at a couple guys, and I mean a couple guys who we thought might be “good” not saviors.

Today, I’d like to really dig into the pitching prospect outlook for this franchise as we sit here and we’ll do that by breaking them into buckets. I also am simply not going to mention the short term patch possibilities like Quintana, or Eickhoff. Just going to focus on who the Pirates are developing.

Bucket 1: Immediate – Near Term

JT Brubaker – He’s had two complete seasons in MLB and at 28 years old, he’s a classic late bloomer. People often forget for quite some time he was ahead of Mitch Keller in the system before running into injury trouble. He’s proven he has good enough stuff to get outs, unfortunately he’s also proven it comes with a realization that his stuff isn’t good enough to survive an off night or fatigue. If he keeps the homeruns under control in 2022, he’s someone who’s just getting started, regardless of age.

Zach Thompson – Another late bloomer at 28 years of age, Thompson was finally given a shot in 2021 before being dealt to Pittsburgh for Jacob Stallings. This is a big man, 6′ 7″ and 230 pounds the big Texan and former 5th round selection in 2014 finally cracked through in Miami. There’s a chance he could help the Pirates and if he does what he did last year he’s instantly one of their better options. Again, the age isn’t ideal, but the baseball age is exciting, he doesn’t even hit arbitration until 2025.

Bryse Wilson – The 2016 Atlanta Braves 4th round pick made his debut in 2018 and despite his age and experience level easily has the most seasoning of this bucket. He’s not eligible for arbitration until 2024 and much like Brubaker, ran into trouble with the long ball in 2021 giving up 15 in only 74 innings pitched. His approach and stuff looked impressive and if he figures it out he’s just getting started. A theme we’ll run into for a bunch of these guys.

Mitch Keller – The Pirates 2nd round selection in 2014 and former top prospect still has arguably the highest ceiling in this bucket. Being that he reaches arbitration eligibility in 2023 he’s also nearing the limit for chances to prove all the promise can translate to MLB. He’s certainly put in work this off season and he wouldn’t be the first guy to struggle early and find his legs late. He’ll be 26 this year, but as we’ve already covered his baseball age is further along than some others he’ll be competing with. That said, his ceiling tells me he gets every opportunity this year, and if it doesn’t work, they’ve done about all they could. Big Year for Mitch to say the least.

Roansy Contreras – Geez, if you haven’t heard his name yet, you sure will. He’s 22 years old and isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2025. Roansy is the Pirates number 6 prospect and has done absolutely nothing but impress since coming over in the trade with the Yankees for Jameson Taillon. The stuff is real, the velocity is repeatable, and more than most his age, he looks the part when the lights get brighter. He’s worth getting excited about, but he’s young and also ran into some arm issues last year which is always scary. Bottom line, if he stays healthy, he arrives this year, and gets more than a taste this time.

Max Kranick – The 24 year old 2016 11th round pick out of Scranton PA is my dark horse to come out of this bucket and reach his ceiling. He’s hitting 97-98 on the gun and seems to have advanced control of his breaking stuff. He arrived early last season and it’s likely going to cause him to have to work his way back into the opportunity this season, but his history says he’ll use the off season to fine tune his shortcomings and outwork his doubters. Even if he doesn’t wind up being a starter in the league, he’s got all the signs of a good relief arm and plenty of time to show who he is on top of that.

Wil Crowe – Many of you have probably already decided that Crowe is not only not a prospect but also not an answer. Wil has one full season under his belt and isn’t eligible for arbitration until 2024. What’s interesting about Wil is he pitched a significant number of games in 2021 and found himself near league average for WAR. That may wind up amounting to nothing, but it’s more than most of these prospects can say right now.

Miguel Yajure – Another player from the Yankees and the Pirates 25th ranked prospect, many have noted that Miguel has the most advanced breaking stuff in the system. In fact, before the season really got started it’s fair to say most fans were much more excited about Yajure than Contreras, and that could simply be because Roansy was younger and seen to be behind him in progression. Miguel ran into fatigue issues during 2021 but put together a solid AAA campaign. Hard to imagine a world where he doesn’t see significant MLB time this year.

Dillon Peters – I have a hard time considering Peters a prospect, but for consistency’s sake, I’ll let his arbitration timeline do the talking. He’s not eligible for arbitration until 2024 and the Pirates lack of left handed depth in both the rotation and bullpen scream that Peters has to be considered. Selected in the 10th round by Miami he’s bounced around and up and down, never really experiencing anything you’d consider success until the Pirates acquired him. In 6 starts he put up a 3.71 ERA and at least earned having his hat tossed in the ring for a gig in 2022. He’s not a hard thrower and his stuff isn’t particularly impressive, but something about his presence really spoke to Bucco fans in 2021.

That’s it, I see all of these players with a chance to make their contributions to the Pirates a longer stint. Out of those players I see three with really high ceilings and while I don’t care about their physical age all that much, the high ceiling guys are all under 26 and have a chance to play a role here beyond initial team control.

Bucket 2: Waiting in the Wings

Cody Bolton – Before I get into this one, I debated putting him in bucket one, but Cody has just lost too much time to assume he’s going to do enough to beat out that list I put there. He’ll be 24 years old this year and while I think it’s likely he’ll see his debut this year, I don’t see it being much more than that. Cody is an interesting talent, drafted in the 6th round in 2017, Bolton has mature stuff, but simply hasn’t stayed on the field. Breezed through both his short seasons and then 2019 saw him blow through Bradenton on his way to Altoona, he’d go on to start in 21 games and cement himself as one of the best pitching prospects in the system. He hasn’t thrown a professional pitch since. He was so impressive before the lost season and then his 2021 injury that he still ranks as the Pirates 29th ranked prospect. Yet to many fans, he’s a forgotten man.

Omar Cruz – Acquired from San Diego, Omar is one of the very few left handed pitching prospects this club has. He’s not a hard thrower, but he is in total control of himself on the mound. The Pirates 27th ranked prospect, Cruz is also my number one target to worry about being selected in the Rule Five draft. He’s easily advanced enough to stick in a bullpen.

Luis Oviedo – Yeah, you think you know him from last year, and I won’t lie, 2021 will stick with him until he’s proven it was more about how raw he was than his overall talent level. I expect Luis to start in AA this year and he’ll get an opportunity to develop into the starter he and the Pirates want him to be. This is either going to be a complete theft of talent or an unnecessary waste of a project. I do like his stuff, and even though I understand he was raw, I expected to see him improve enough to get 3 outs once in a while, the Pirates just chose to bury him.

Kyle Nicolas – The other pitcher returned in the Jacob Stallings trade, and arguably the more talented of the two. Kyle has stuff for days and his ceiling says to keep your eyes open. What makes Nicolas a great pick up is probably that his floor looks to be a capable setup style arm should starting not work out, but his control will really tell the story. I think he’ll start in AA, but I also think if they diagnose him as a bullpen guy early he could be in the majors as early as 2022. The 24th ranked prospect in the system, Kyle is the very definition of an open ended question.

Quinn Priester – The Pirates number 1 pick in 2019, Quinn is uniquely talented. He has top end stuff and his self taught pitch mix has taken time to refine. Half way through 2021 the Pirates started feeling they had honed in on his best 3 or 4 pitches and started letting him cut loose with them which produced success. Quinn is a perfect example of not getting too hung up on the numbers as you understand what he’s being asked to work on and how. The Pirates number 2 prospect is very unlikely to make the show in 2022, and not due to lack of talent, instead it’ll be more about letting him progress at his own pace and set up for a 2023 debut if everything stays on track.

Michael Burrows – The 14th ranked prospect in the system, Michael has just blown his projections out of the water. An 11th round pick in 2018, He blew everyone’s socks off in 2021 posting a 2.20 ERA and 0.898 WHIP in 13 starts with Greensboro and followed it up with a promising stint in the Arizona Fall League. Burrows is on the rise and is right on track to push Quinn along the same timeline.

Carmen Mlodzinski – Pronounced (Muh-Jin-Ski) was the 31st overall pick in 2020 and he simply hasn’t pitched much. He’s the Pirates number 10 prospect and has just rocketed upward in both expectation and performance. He’s been consistent since becoming a Pirates farm hand, but his availability to be available at 31 is a direct reflection of just how little he threw at South Carolina only appearing in 26 games from 2018-2020. He’ll be 23 on Saturday the 19th and will most likely start in AA, but Carmen could also jump past everyone else in this bucket if the team so chose.

Bucket 3: The Wave After That

I’m not going to write as deeply about these guys, but please don’t let that make you feel they’re less impressive. I could make a pretty strong argument I like what I see in this level even more than Bucket 2, there just isn’t enough on them yet to pretend I have a complete image.

JC Flowers – I start him in this bucket, but only because he just reached Greensboro. I love everything about this kid, but he’s just too far away.

Tahnaj Thomas – If not Cruz, Thomas is another Rule Five concern. The stuff plays but man he really struggled last year and he’s still the Bucs 13th ranked prospect. The reason his struggles are different than Priester for instance, he had a hell of a time placing his explosive fastball. A great comp for him is Luis Oviedo actually, which is why I think he’ll remain a Pirate.

Saniago Florez – Wow, impressed with his work in Bradenton, and despite his step back in Greensboro, he was terrific in 2021, especially after not pitching in 2020 at all. Excellent progress and he put himself in this conversation.

Now for the 2020 Draft group not named Carmen.

Logan Hofmann, Jared Jones, Nick Garcia – I mean, they each deserve their own listing but they’re also all significant as they all have impressed and have themselves on track for straightforward progression. Jared Jones has a shot to be VERY special.

Po-Yu Chen – The international signing also from 2020 should find his way to Greensboro this year and when he inked a deal with the Bucs, Cherington referred to his signing to getting an extra 2nd round pick.

Bucket 4: Pedigree With No Proof

Anthony Solometo, Brennan Malone, Eddy Yean, Bubba Chandler

Youv’e all seen Solometo’s funky left handed delivery and know about Bubba Chandler’s two way abilities. Eddy Yean is the piece that will ultimately determine how good or bad the Bell trade was and Brennan Malone needs to stay healthy.

13 of the Pirates top prospects are pitchers, and there has been a concentrated effort to bring in high ceiling pitching talent. Don’t get me wrong, this entire list isn’t going to come up and be the answer, in fact if half of them do Ben Cherington should have a statue erected on Federal Street. Pitching is often decimated by injury, and the sudden discovery of their wall. For instance, as good as Mlodzinski has been, as great as his stuff looks, he could find that AAA that stuff just doesn’t get the job done anymore.

I love to remind people that Mitch Keller was once the number 7 prospect in baseball, not the Pirates, BASEBALL. There are no guarantees, but you have to like what you’re seeing here and the near year over year influx that have a chance to make an impact.

I get excited about the future of the Pirates because of the sheer number of top end talents, because as hard as it’d be to have half of them succeed, it’d be even harder for 3/4 of them to fail or wash out entirely.

Before you start telling me who is and isn’t going to make it, keep in mind, to me it’s a numbers game, and these waves or buckets of talent are something I think will help make this whole thing come together either by contributing or as collateral to bring in more established talent.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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